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Fewer LA high school students than expected for breakfast in classroom

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Los Angeles Unified promised to give all students the opportunity to have breakfast in the classroom, but new figures show only about half of students are munching on French toast, coffee cake, cereal, breakfast burritos and fresh fruit. 

The lower turnout is in part because, in its third year, the program is still rolling out to schools. 

Many high schools will get their first taste this year. Schools will aim for a 40 percent participation rate in order to qualify for more federal funds as part of a district incentive program.

A handful of schools in wealthier neighborhood schools opted out altogether.

David Binkle, director of the food services division, says low participation can also be a reflection of what’s on the menu.

“Whether it’s a hot item or a cold item, whether it’s fruit or yogurt, for example, is very popular, so we have a lot of children who will ask for seconds, " Binkle said, after presenting new data Tuesday to the school board's Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Committee.

Binkle said his team is asking teachers and students to share what works and what doesn't.

The program started in 2010, saving hundreds of cafeteria jobs. The district was still reeling from recession-era cuts, and officials projected the breakfast program would generate about $16.6 million in federal meal funds after expenses.

About 80 percent of Los Angeles Unified students qualify for free or reduced cost meals in the federal program. 

Before breakfast was served in the classroom, students went to the cafeteria prior to class, but participation was much lower – only 7 percent at high schools.

“There was a stigma attached, because students had to go into the lunch line to get breakfast,” said Edward Colacion, the principal of Young Oak Kim Academy, north of downtown Los Angeles.

As of this week, over 300,000 students are participating in the Breakfast in the Classroom program, adding up to 55 million morning meals served annually. 

The program is not without critics. Many teachers and staff complain the meals bring more pests.

“We are fighting ants and roaches all the time,” said Cathy Ellingford, a library aide at Eagle Rock Elementary.

Opponents of the program say it should be moved back to the cafeteria so students don't miss out on instructional time.

Binkle wants critics to consider all the new children being fed. Before the program, fewer than half of the students who qualified got meals.

He is now looking to expand offerings for another meal – dinner.